EmmaJane Kirby has written a real ‘voxpop’ view of higher education and employment realities in France. She is right, of course: there are too many students in France studying the wrong subjects for a life of useful employment. The same can probably be said of the UK – and often is by the current Government – but there is a difference: in France the love of structured philosophical debate permeates every café and dinner table. It is common to be asked to dinner and told, with joyful anticipation, not just what one will be eating but also what the assembled company can debate. French university life without discourse is unthinkable. Here, in the UK, ‘management reports’, or something akin to them, are often required as part of academic programmes. These require individual views on actions to be taken, taking responsibility for those views, and evidence. That is quite different from presenting a balanced overview of accepted opinion before coming to a conclusion that, itself, respects those views that have been cast aside. Of course, the best UK universities require that kind of essay as well – but it is very debatable that second-level universities regularly require the same level of balanced discourse as is the norm in France. Then again, how many young graduates in France are allowed to take responsibility for their decisions and to follow them through? In the UK, if you cannot ‘do’, you might as well go home. (“Doing”, in this case meaning to take on a task and see it through independently of management – a somewhat un-French response.)
If a worldwide survey fails to rate French universities highly, perhaps the survey needs adjusting to take into account a wider view of life. Engineers who can discuss the merits of different global economic policies or approaches to poetry do exist in both cultures but it is more common in France and life somehow more enriched and enduring for that.